Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

The biggest upside of enjoying Morgan Matson's books is that she routinely publishes every year under her name and also under the name Katie Finn. This month, Matson's The Unexpected Everything and Finn's Hearts, Fingers, and Other Things to Cross were published, and while I picked them both up, I read The Unexpected Everything first. 

Teenage Andie has her entire summer already planned out. She's going to attend a prestigious summer program at John Hopkins that will set her up for pre-med and her projected career as a doctor. She's so sure about her own plans, that she feels stressed on behalf of her on-again/off-again Topher, who forgot to secure anything and is going to intern for his father instead. Andie sees the summers between high school as the time to build her resume and the credentials she needs to plan her future. This planning impulse might be an influence of her dad, who is local congressman Alexander Walker. But when a scandal means the congressman has to step down, and the doctor who acted as Andie's referee for the program rescinds his letter, Andie realizes she's going to have to make other plans. She just doesn't expect those plans to be becoming Stanwich, Connecticut's resident dog walker.

Friendship largely shapes the novel, as Andie's tight knit group of friends - Palmer, Toby, and Bri - are together for the entire summer for the very first time. And then there's Clark, named after a superhero and with the same, chunky glasses, who is living in Stanwich for the summer and taking care of Bertie, the dog that comes with the house he's staying in. Clark writes a bestselling series of fantasy novels, and although he's only nineteen, he's achieved a George R. R. Martin level of success, and readers are clamouring for his next novel in much the same way. When Clark and Andie find their lives colliding, they leap into a summer romance, one that is nuanced and exciting.

I flew through The Unexpected Everything. Matson knows how to write YA novels set in the summer, and characters from her other summer novels - Second Chance Summer and Since You've Been Gone - make cameos here. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House by David Mitchell is a fantastic work of horror set between the 1970s and the present. Although I've never read The Bone Clocks (the only other Mitchell book I've read is Black Swan Green), Slade House is meant to be a companion novel, and Guardian reviewer Liz Jensen writes, "Think The Bone Clocks’s naughty little sister in a fright wig, brandishing a sparkler, yelling 'Boo!'" I read Slade House a couple of months ago, but only thought to write about it now. Last night I was reading Kenneth Oppel's new middle grade novel, The Nest, a gothic horror story, and it reminded me so much of Slade House. I remember thinking that Slade House read a lot like YA, and then it turned out that a middle grade novel jogged my memory of it. 

Mitchell's latest work is a ghost story, one set in the gothic Slade House, an aging mansion that only appears once every nine years. Interconnected stories take place in 1979, 1988, 1997, 2006, and 2015, and focus on characters such as a young boy, a police officer, a female college student, and a reporter. Slade House lures in a new victim through its small iron door that branches off of Slade Alley. It's only discoverable when it needs to be, and when its time for someone new to come inside. Two ghosts, twin siblings, orchestrate elaborate fantasies inside Slade House, choosing a narrative that is most likely to draw in the person they are looking for. The stories offer the reader a variation on a theme, and while the first story seemed very Neil Gaiman-esque, the tone changes with each nine-year cycle. 

While I always associate October with horror - and it's probably when I read most of the horror novels I stock up - Slade House is the kind of book to read on a summer night, when you're sunburned and tired and mosquito-bitten, and it's dark outside later and later. It's also often a very funny novel, taking comedic turns and engaging with references, a combination that makes the novel extremely readable. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Haters by Jesse Andrews

Somehow, my branch of Canadian bookstore Chapters had a copy of Jesse Andrews's new novel The Haters last week, despite the fact that it's "book birthday" is today. But I didn't have an opportunity to start reading it until last night, and when I did, I read it all the way through, in-one-sitting style. The Haters is Andrews's sophomore novel, following up on the incredibly popular Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (and like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Haters already has a cinematic quality to it, and also experiments with the screenplay dialogue throughout. It's easy to imagine The Haters in movie form). 

The Haters focuses on best friends Wes and Corey, who are attending a two-week summer Jazz Camp. Chapter One is entitled, "We Didn't Know Jazz Camp Would Be This Many Dudes" and shows jazz camp orientation from Wes's perspective,
Dudes were trying with all their might to be mellow and cool. Everywhere you looked, a dude was making a way too exaggerated face of agreement or friendliness. And every ten seconds it was clear that some dude had made a joke in some region of the auditorium, because all the other dudes in that region were laughing at that joke in loud, emphatic ways.
They were trying to laugh lightheartedly but it was unmistakably the crazed, anxious barking of competitive maniacs. (1)
Jazz camp attendees have to audition for one of five bands that are ranked from most skilled to least skilled: the Duke Ellington band, the Count Basie band, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, the Woody Herman band, and the Gene Krupa band. Wes and Corey make Gene Krupa, along with one of the only girls at the camp. Ash (short for Ashely) is a guitarist, and Wes is immediately into her. Also in Gene Krupa is Tim, an annoying guitarist who Wes watches do a brilliant solo: "The most sensitive, brilliant mind in the room seemed to belong to an unignorable scumbag. But that should not have been surprising. That's just how the music world works a lot of the time" (30). Wes and Corey love music, and they love to hate on it. Wes's memory of Corey hating on Kool and the Gang is kind of heartbreaking; when Corey doesn't like the band that Wes absolutely loves, it kind of ruins his own love of it. 

Later, Wes and Corey leave the jazz camp campus with Ash to get high-end sushi after a successful jam session, and the three immediately get in trouble with the camp staff. After that, Ash has no trouble convincing Wes and Corey to leave with her and tour as a band across the southern states. Her rationale? "I do like jazz some of the time. But I don't think any of the jazz I like was played by someone who went to jazz camp" (37). They leave their phones behind at camp (so they can't be traced by GPS) and set off in Ash's mom's car looking to book a gig. What follows is their road trip into the southern states, and pages are crowded with their conversations. They debate band names (Air Horse, Thundergarment) and try to come up with a slogan ("work hard, play hard" is vetoed after Ash describes it as "the philosophy of being a relatively high-functioning alcoholic"). 

Like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Andrews experiments with form and style. Dialogue between Corey's mom and dad and then Wes's mom and dad duels on several pages. A "Courtship Initiation Sequence Checklist" occurs on page 261. Screenplay dialogue appears frequently, and these back-and-forths between Wes and Corey (and also Ash) are some of the funniest in the novel.

The Haters is the perfect read for when you're up late at night, and a little bit tired, so that all of the jokes and funny moments hit harder than they would in the daytime. The Haters is a really funny book, with laugh-out-loud moments as good as those Louise Rennison consistently delivered in her Georgia Nicolson series. I didn't know I was looking for a YA book about a band tour until Andrews wrote one. Other YA band books that come to mind are Don Calame's Beat the Band  and K. L. Going's Fat Kid Rules the World, but The Haters is a much different book from those. The music references are endless and cover a wide range of genres and styles, and many serve to root the contemporary setting. The Haters is a fantastic book, completely funny and entertaining. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner rotates between three primary characters - Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Dill's father is a local preacher who handles poisonous snakes and drinks arsenic with his congregation. He's recently been imprisoned; not for these unconventional practices, but instead for possession of child pornography. Dill is living in the aftermath of his father's crimes, saddled with the name of his father and the legacy of his grandfather, known as The Serpent King. While the novel is told from an omniscient point of view, Dill's story is the one that continuously comes into focus, and roots the direction of the narrative. At the beginning of the novel, he seems content to continue living in his small town for the rest of his life, paying down his parents' legal debts. But his aspirations soon grow wider, aided by Lydia's belief that he should attend college. When this new path is opened for him, he understands "nothing makes you feel more naked than someone identifying a desire you never knew you possessed" (82). Dill is hemmed in by the inescapable pressures of religion, and especially as embodied in his family. His mother doesn't want him to go to college and when Lydia asks him how it went when he finally tells her, he says, "And how do you think? She went, 'Sure, Dill, go off to college and have fun and learn about evolution and pay tuition and go to class instead of working, and I'll hold down the fort here and it'll be cool.' No. She crapped herself, obviously" (179). 

Lydia is ready to escape small-town Tennessee. Her dad is a dentist and she lives in one of the nicest houses in town, and has always had aspirations to leave the South behind her. Lydia spends much of her time working on her blog, Dollywould, which focuses on fashion and vintage clothes. Her interests are much different than those of her classmates. For example, she has a copy of Donna Tartt's The Secret History in her Prius, a car that she's nicknamed Al Gore. Later, she buys a secondhand copy of her favourite book, Patti Smith's Just Kids, at Riverbank, their favourite used and new bookstore. She reads The Diary of Anais Nin at their high school cafeteria table. Her path in life and her personal convictions are strengthened by viewing everything she knows she does not want out of life in the town that she was raised in. 

Travis was my favorite character. He reads to escape his small town and is obsessed with a Game of Thrones knockoff series called Bloodfall. He spends time on message boards dedicated to the series, and it's here that he meets a teenage girl named Amelia, who is as into the books as he is. Travis is an imposing teenager at 6 feet 6 inches and 250 pounds, and wears the same outfit nearly every day. Dill watches him leave his house to join him and Lydia on a trip to Nashville, observing, "He wore his signature black work boots, black wranglers, and baggy black dress shirt buttoned all the way up. Around his neck, he wore a necklace with a chintzy pewter dragon gripping a purple crystal ball - a memento from some Renaissance festival." He also carries a staff, which Lydia is constantly on his case about. He has a devastating home life; his brother Matt was killed in an explosion while serving in the U.S. Army and his father has become even more abusive since Matt's death. 

The Serpent King is an unexpected novel, one that gives readers characters to care about. Heartbreaking moments are mixed in with truly satisfying moments, as Dill, Lydia, and Travis consider what their lives will look like when they aren't trapped by their small town high school. It's been a while since I've read a novel the whole way through in one sitting, but that's what I did with The Serpent King. It's Zentner's debut novel, and I'm looking forward to watching for his next publication. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

I Crawl Through It by A. S. King

A. S. King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz is one of my favorite books, and I've tried to stay current with King's subsequent publications. The last one I read was Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, where protagonist Glory can see into the future after digesting a mummified bat. King's YA novels are stand-outs in this category of literature, and her newest novel, I Crawl Through It (2015) is no exception. 

Four characters are suffocating under anxieties associated with over-testing, bomb threats, school drills, and loss. There's Gustav, who is building an invisible helicopter in his garage, built from a $50,000 kit gifted to him by a character called the bush man. Stanzi is obsessed with dissections, and the book even includes a hand drawn diagram of a recent frog dissection that she's completed. She wears a lab coat every day, and is hopelessly in love with Gustav. China has recently turned herself inside out. She's a walking, talking organ, trying to figure out her life after being raped by her ex-boyfriend. Lansdale tells lies constantly, and her hair grows longer with every lie she tells (King describes it as the Pinocchio of hair). Her father keeps acquiring new wives (and stepmoms for Lansdale) and it's getting to be too much. 

King's novel dives into surrealism, as characters take on the metaphorical qualities of their anxieties and pressures. However, it is also deeply rooted in the reality of over-testing and high school violence and shootings, and King shows police dogs entering the school, alarms sounding, and students streaming out the building on a daily basis. For vacation, Stanzi's parents take her the sites of major violence, for example, to Columbine and Sandy Hook. 

China is a budding poet, and it's her poetry that also roots the novel in realism. When she thinking about Irenic Brown, the boy her raped her, she writes a poem called "Some Boys Have Tricks":
We believe them like
we believe the weatherman
when he predicts snow
and when he's wrong, we shrug
and blame ourselves for ever believing him. 
When the novel becomes overly surrealist, its teenage characters make comments that remind readers of their stark reality, and what it's like to be a teenager. Stanzi's parents, for example, are largely absent from the first three quarters of the novel. When Stanzi returns home from school, it's to the same note left for her in the kitchen: "Gone to bed. TV dinner in freezer. Make sure you turn out the lights." But her parents aren't really in bed. Stanzi doesn't reveal the reality of their location until a third of the way into the novel. She says, 
More specifically, they're at Chick's Bar, which is just down the street from our house. Two hundred and twelve steps, to be exact. Architects built the community this way. With bars. And playgrounds. They're near each other so parents can watch their kids fall off the swing set from their barstool and then try to sober up on the way to the hospital for clavicle X-rays.
King's novels are always surprising, innovative, and interesting, and I'm excited to see the follow up to I Crawl Through It.